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Azerbaijan and Iran: Suspicious Minds

Cyber attacks, a murdered journalist, and an alleged assassination plot speak to an increasingly dangerous north-south divide.

by Shahla Sultanova 14 February 2012

BAKU | The title of a recent weekend public-affairs program on ATV, Azerbaijan’s most-watched television channel, left little room for misinterpretation: Iran’s Devastating Policy. But in case anyone missed the point, the show’s narrator made it clear.


“Iran, which has historically been hostile to Azerbaijan, continues that policy today. It blows a wind of terror in the region. … Iran embraces bloody Armenia and supports it. … Iran is trying to foment revolution in Azerbaijan.” The program blames Iran for the murder three months ago of a journalist in Baku and for recent attacks on government, political, and media websites in Azerbaijan.


A poster in an outdoor exhibition in Baku on 20 January highlights the separation of Azeri communities in Azerbaijan and Iran. It reads, "Enough division - we need to unite!"


Relations between the neighbors have long showed signs of strain. Baku believes Iran tilted toward Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute; Tehran eyes with suspicion Azerbaijan’s ties to the West. The countries have jousted over religious issues, the status of the Caspian Sea, and the treatment of 19 million ethnic Azeris living in Iran. But publicly, at least, polite diplomacy has been the norm.


Those strains are now out in the open, and very much a matter of public debate. Some Azerbaijani legislators are even advocating that the republic change its name to Northern Azerbaijan – in effect, formally recognizing the widespread belief in the country that northern Iran is essentially “Southern Azerbaijan.”


Although it was proposed by members of the ruling New Azerbaijan party, the name change is given little chance of succeeding. But like the ATV broadcast, it shows how deep anti-Iran sentiment is running in Baku political circles.


“It’s more political psychology than a seriously examined proposal,” said Eldar Namazov, a political analyst who served as foreign-policy aide to the late President Heydar Aliev. “I suppose members of parliament wanted to emphasize the fact that there are Azeris living in Iran and they are suppressed by the Iranian regime.”


Other observers attribute the newly charged atmosphere to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and growing isolation from the West.


“Azerbaijan is being urged by world powers to make its position toward Iran clear,” said Arastun Orujlu, head of Baku’s East-West Research Center. “Any choice [it makes] will not be in favor of Iran.”


Sulhaddin Akbar of the Euro-Atlantic Council, which favors stronger U.S. ties, said that choice has fostered the alleged cross-border provocations. “Azerbaijan’s close relationship with the United States and Israel irritates Iran,” he said. “They are very serious about it, especially the clerics.”




According to Baku, that seriousness has manifested itself in several recent suspicious incidents, starting with the death in the fall of Rafiq Tagi. A journalist known for writing critically about Iran and Islam, Tagi was knifed by an unknown assailant near his home on 19 November and died in the hospital four days later. In an interview with Radio Free Europe from his hospital bed, Tagi said he believed his critical articles might have precipitated the assault.


Iran’s mission in Baku denied any Iranian involvement in the attack, which it characterized in a statement on the embassy website as “Zionist-American sabotage.” But Tagi’s death was publicly welcomed by Ayatollah Muhammad Jawad Fazel Lankarani, the son of the late Ayatollah Sheikh Mohammed Fazel Lankarani, who issued a fatwa against the journalist in 2006. In a statement on his website, Lankarani, who heads an Iranian center of religious jurisprudence, offered congratulations to “the zealous people of Azerbaijan” for Tagi’s assassination.


No one has been charged in Tagi’s death, but Azerbaijani authorities have explicitly linked the 16 January hacking of 25 official websites, including those of numerous government ministries, to Iran. A group calling itself the AzerianCyberArmy took credit for the attacks, posting statements on the hacked sites that accused Baku of policies that violate the rights of devout Muslims, such as closing mosques and restricted the wearing of headscarves.


Ali Abbasov, Azerbaijan’s minister for communication and information technology, said 24 of the 25 attacks were launched from Iran (the other came from the Netherlands). But Osman Gunduz, president of the Internet Forum civic group, said more evidence is needed to show Iranian culpability. “There are some programs that can use an Iranian IP address and function in different countries,” he said.


Iranian Embassy spokesman Abbas Iskenderi told media in Baku that Iran had no role in the cyber-attacks and blamed them on unnamed groups trying to damage relations between the two countries.


Only a few days after the hacking, two Azerbaijani citizens, Rasim Aliev and Ali Huseynov, were arrested in connection with an alleged plot to kill foreign figures. The ministry did not identify the supposed targets, but RFE reported that they were the Israeli ambassador in Baku and a rabbi who teaches at a Jewish school.


Security officials said the suspects had acquired explosives, firearms, and military supplies and that a third man, Balaqardash Dadashov – Rasim Aliev’s brother-in-law, who was said to be living in Iran and cooperating with that country’s intelligence agencies – was the ringleader.


Iran again denied involvement, this time invoking the international dispute over its nuclear program in a statement on its embassy’s website: “This is an attempt by the Zionist regime to conceal its terror attack toward the nuclear scientists of Iran. The alleged terror act was organized by enemies of both countries and focuses on destroying Iran’s image and jeopardizing its relationship with Azerbaijan.”




All the recent cases remain under investigation. In the meantime, several members of parliament from the New Azerbaijan party, with support from other pro-government factions, floated the idea of a national name change, even calling for a referendum on becoming Northern Azerbaijan.


“There are the examples of North and South Korea, North and South Cyprus in the world,” Siyavush Novruzov, executive secretary of the ruling party, told Azerbaijani news agency Trend. “It would be advisable if Azerbaijan, as a divided state, would be called Northern Azerbaijan."


Elhan Shahinoghlu, head of the foreign- and security-policy think tank Atlas Research Center and a supporter of the change, said it would bring international attention to the division between ethnic Azeris in the region and to alleged Iranian provocations.


“Can you believe there is an Iranian-backed terrorist group in Baku?” he said, referring to last month’s arrests. “No matter how tolerant Azerbaijan is toward Iran, Iran always tries to harm our country. Its friendship with Armenia is good example of that.”


Igbal Aghazade, leader of the center-right Umid (Hope) opposition party, said the Northern Azerbaijan proposal is a distraction from more serious issues, such as the frozen conflict in Karabakh, and a potentially dangerous one. “If we claim to change the country’s name to Northern Azerbaijan, Iran can accuse us of separatism. It is a threat to Iran’s territorial integrity,” he said.


But even those who dismiss the idea characterize it as an understandable reaction to rising concerns about Iran’s motives. “Iranian political circles repeatedly criticize Azerbaijan, its foreign and internal policy. It even threatens Azerbaijan,” said Namazov, the former Heydar Aliev adviser. “Azerbaijan has to respond to all this.”

Shahla Sultanova is a journalism instructor at Khazar University in Baku and a former reporter and anchor at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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